Let me catch my breath. Srsly. It’s been an incredible year so far. Some real pinch-me highlights, that I have to list just to make sure they actually happened…
- Appearing on BBC Radio 1 with Huw Stephens, discussing my work with the gloves in an accessibility context. Discussing Accessible Music Tech. On Radio 1. We live in the future.
- Appearing on BBC 1 prime time news, talking about, well y’know… Making sufficient impression that I get recognised in supermarkets for it, which is nice.
- My first UK Headline tour! Overwhelmingly well received, a huge victory for amplifying the conversation around disability and music.
- Performing on stage on said tour with Imogen Heap(!) performing one of my all-time favourite songs, Breath In (originally by Imogen’s band Frou Frou) with 2(!) pairs of gloves on the same stage! A tech first!
- Representing my work with Drake Music and sharing my story at music education events such as musicALL in Birmingham and ISME in Scotland.
- Performing at the 2015 Paralympic Day celebration in London, a performance that was briefly covered in Channel 4’s TV coverage of the event.
- Being invited to present the gloves with the mi.mu team at Abbey Road; proper bucket list stuff.
- Performing at Music Tech Fest 2016 in Berlin, showcasing my work with the gloves to possibly the most discerning and talented audience of technologists at the biggest celebration of new music technology.
Enough not-even-remotely-humblebragging? I know, right. So how did we get here?
In the summer of 2015 I was approached by Attitude Is Everything and Independent Venue Week with an incredibly ambitious idea: for IVW and AIE to present my first UK tour. Both organisations were keen to be showcasing a disabled artist, and highlighting the challenges that disabled performers face on the road. Less than 2 years before, I’d been thinking seriously about giving up live music. If I could have known then what was not too far in the future, well, you know.
It’s scary to think back to how dark that time was. 2 years before all this, before the tour, before the gloves. I was performing my songs in a stripped back, acoustic-guitar-and-sometimes-piano format, playing regularly in my hometown region of the West Midlands. I was firmly in a state of denial about my access barriers then; despite all the difficulties getting in and around venues, I put up and shut up. That was until an access barrier threatened to shut me up for good.
Cerebral Palsy can be incredibly cruel in it’s less obvious symptoms. My wobbly gait is to be expected, but the pain, the muscle spasms, the half-my-body-just-won’t-do-as-it’s told… people don’t see that it. It’s all hidden from view, and easy to deny. I have Hemiplegic CP, which means my Right Hand side is impaired; my left increasingly catching up not due to the condition, but due to doing most of the work. My hands were working against me, and my musicianship was taking a thorough beating as a result.
I forced myself through many gigs, unwilling to acknowledge the pain and difficulty. I remember losing my bottle when it came to playing Ratted Me Out one night in Coventry. My hands were too tight; I wasn’t going to make that fiddlier middle 8. I’d played it hundreds of times before, why was it so hard now? I retreated formative music soon after, filled with fear and uncertainty.
In this retreat, I spoke about this to Gawain Hewitt, leader of R&D at Drake Music. I got in touch with DM in the hope of connecting with other disabled artists; I was yet to be involved in a formal supported context. Gawain, an extraordinary technologist, took my worries on board thoughtfully, and we kicked back and forth ideas about how I could embrace accessible tech as a singer/songwriter. Soon I faced further frustration. I didn’t click with the kinds of accessible tech approaches around at that time. They were valid in many contexts, but as a songwriter craving chordal instruments, and room for discipline and musicianship in a way similar to what I once had with guitars, I was lost. Nothing fitted, nothing clicked into place.
Around this time, Gawain was talking to Kelly Snook, who was working with Imogen Heap’s team developing the ambitious, futuristic mi.mu gloves. Gawain and I chatted about the gloves; it was immediately obvious to us that the gloves were, quite by accident, potentially one of the most exciting developments in terms of accessible technology. An instrument that could make sense of the wearer’s movements, within that person’s own limitations, and translate that to something meaningfully musical… it’s difficult to articulate just how exciting that was to me. Pure musical sci-fi, with the potential to overcome access barriers in a beautiful, elegant way.
You know the next bit; I jumped on board with Drake Music’s idea of obtaining a pair of gloves. I expected to have some fun for a few weeks with them, write a blog post; maybe I’d even get to meet Imogen Heap – how neat would that be? I didn’t predict, though I surely should have, how much the gloves would take over my life and my music.
I tinkered furiously for months, learning the software, pushing the boundaries to feel out the limits of the technology. Along the way Gawain got me presenting the gloves at tech events and education conferences, and I started to get my chops up. I was learning beyond my access barriers; overcoming was the goal at first, but by now they were normalising; the gloves offered possibilities beyond anything else I could get my hands on, regardless of disability.
In the studio I was a confident arranger and multi-instrumentalist, but my ambitious records were forced to be stripped down to basics when performing live, solo. The gloves were a way to reimagine those recordings, while being true to their original arrangements. With gestural, “invisible” instruments, my one-man-band studio approach was suddenly something I could bring to the stage. That was the greatest accomplishment in terms of accessibility. The gloves didn’t just get me over the barriers, they levelled the playing field and allowed me to push my artistry to new limits. It wasn’t about getting me back to where I left off, it was about taking me to a new creative place, one so infinitely more rewarding that the concept of playing live the old way seemed quaint at best.
So that’s around the time that IVW & AIE came to me with the idea of doing the tour. Right now, I have to go and make music, so more on that in the next time xx